Keeping Gaza's Food Traditions Alive

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Photo by Amir Sadafi


Palestinian cuisine is as varied as the land, which ranges from the lush green valleys of the north to the desert dunes of the south. As 80 percent of Gaza's population are refugees displaced in 1948, within Gaza one finds food traditions from every part of Palestine. A lot of the foods, especially those found in restaurants (hummus, ful, mutabbal, mejaddra) are common throughout the Levant. Nonetheless, a specifically Gazan cuisine does persist, distinct from other Palestinian or Levantine cuisines in its generous use of hot peppers, cumin, and dill, and sour fruits like pomegranite, tamarind and plums.

It relies heavily on fish and on poor-man's ingredients like mustard greens and garbanzos. Many of the most classic dishes are stews cooked slowly in clay pots, unique in the region. Because of Gaza's isolation, many of these recipes are completely unknown outside of the Strip.

Fish Old photos show the fish market of Gaza overflowing with fresh fish: Sultan Ibrahim , or red mullet; arous , similar to sea bream; samak Moussa , a large flounder; tuna, sea bass, sardines, turbot, and all manner of squids, shrimps, and crabs. The current fish market is a sad shadow of what it once was. In fact the manager, of the fish market estimates that the total haul of the 60 boats that set out from the Gaza city port each night barely adds up to what any one boat used to bring in before the waters were restricted.

On the rare occasion that a family can afford to buy seafood, they might make a zibdiyit gambari , whole large shrimp stewed in a clay pot with tomatoes, chilis, garlic, and olive oil.

According to the 1994 Oslo accords, Palestinians are free to fish up to 12 kilometers off the coast of Gaza, but this limit has gradually decreased to the de facto 3 kilometers imposed by the Israeli gunboats that are always present on the horizon. Fishermen know that the migratory routes for fish are farther out, in deeper water, but any boat straying past the 3km limit is promptly fired upon. This limits fishing to the shallow coastal waters, where spawning grounds are being dangerously overfished. Hence the fish that do arrive at market are ever smaller, ever fewer, and ever more costly.

On the rare occasion, then, that a family can afford to buy seafood, they might make a zibdiyit gambari , whole large shrimp stewed in a clay pot with tomatoes, chilis, garlic, fresh dill, sweet peppers and olive oil, and garnished with toasted pine nuts or almonds.

Or else they might make the classic sayyadiy , or "fisherman's dish," in which chunks of fish are fried with caramelized onions, cumin and turmeric, then water and lemon juice are added and the fish simmers until nearly done. Finally, rice is added to cook slowly in this broth with the fish.

Or they might simply grill the fish, marinated first in coriander, chili, cumin and lemon juice and then stuffed with cilantro and garlic. Such grilled fish can be had at any of the seaside restaurants in Gaza city, where families gather to smoke shisha and drink tea and watch the children fly kites on the beach.

Chicken

Festive pride of the Palestinian table, maqluba (literally "upside down") is part of a long lineage of spiced upside-down rice dishes made from Iran to Egypt since at least medieval times. In Palestine many versions are made, using either chicken or lamb, cauliflower or eggplant. The one I was served in the Meghazi refugee camp in Gaza and am still thinking about with awe was made with chicken and cauliflower. The chicken is sauteed in large chunks with onions, and the cauliflower deep fried until browned but not cooked through.

Rice is then soaked for half an hour, drained, and mixed with baharat, a classic Levantine spice mix of black peppercorns, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg and a bit of samneh, a clarified butter. All these ingredients are then layered into a large greased pot: first the chicken, then a layer of toasted almonds, then the cauliflower, and then the soaked and spiced rice. Water is added to cover, and the pot is set to simmer very slowly until the rice is cooked. To serve, the entire pot is turned upside down onto a large tray, making a beautiful glazed mound.

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To read the first part of Maggie Schmitt's series on food in Gaza, click here .

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at gazakitchens.wordpress.com.

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